By Dirk Hayhurst
A few days back, TSN in Canada called me to talk Blue Jays, specifically, how they could go from 2013's most disappointing team to the one presently perched atop the AL East.
I gave the normal answers: The Jays' starting rotation had stabilized, [Insert player] was back and healthy, [insert pitcher] had been effective in his short sample, they got a catcher who can catch, Jose Bautista exists, and the Jays, as a whole, really, really like hitting home runs (68, the most in baseball as of this writing).
This fluff always kills the first five minutes of any interview. Then the granularities start coming out. Stuff like, "Can you explain to us how a guy like Edwin Encarnacion can only hit two homers in April, and then suddenly explode in the month of May? Where was this last month? What do you say to a guy that's on a hot streak like this?"
How to answer… How. To. Answer.
I could do the numerical route. Compare Encarnacion's stats in April to his stats in May and talk about what's improved. The nitty-gritty ones, like zone chase rates shifting cold zones, pitches seen per plate appearance -- stuff that makes you sound really smart when all you actually did was go to Fangraphs 10 minutes before the interview. Do a little light math magic and offer the sum of the two months as an explanation -- brilliant.
Just one problem: It doesn't explain how the result was generated, nor does it actually answer the question.
But it's easily passed off as an answer because it explains something. It gives the listener water-cooler ammo. It offers data and comparisons and stats and all the stuff that the baseball-consuming public is ready to accept as an answer, mostly because if you ask the player how he improved (or regressed) you'll get something much, much less insightful.
Something like, "I was just trying to put a good swing on it and help my team."
It's funny, having played, I know what that means, and how much is actually encapsulated in such a dull sounding statement. However, now that I'm on the other side of the industry, getting paid to debunk it, I also know how lazy it sounds to an industry ravenous for insider takes, and how, even if the player tried to break it all down, they'd just get pigeonholed as a space cadet if they didn't work in some supporting stats to back it all up.
Players hate the: explain why this sample size exists and compare and contrast it against this other sample size-style question. It's not that they can't do the math and offer a non-answer about previous results predicting future behavior, it's because players are process-focused.
Players don't like to overthink anything, and when you ask them to do so, you often get what sounds like a cliché. Some reporters and fans think players are being coy when they say stuff like this, "I just wanted to execute and help the team." They're not. They just don't want to shift their focus to results -- they're working hard to keep the method through which they get them simple and easy in their mind.
A player's ability to succeed in baseball rarely comes out of pure brute force. Most of it is seeing, recognizing and reacting. It's a split second, nearly primal behavior. The more they can train the body to take over to and execute, the less they get in their own way. In baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, the mind has to exit the equation in order for it to be successful. Hence the popular baseball-ism: Keep it simple, stupid.
A sabermetrician may say that the more data a player has on how he can create the same effect, the easier it will be for him to make adjustments. I agree wholeheartedly. But there is a time and a place to process data, and it's not in that split second wherein individual experience, conditioning and instinct coalesce into action. While that moment can be guided and shaped by useful data, there is still a time when planning and action go out the window, and trusting one's feel takes over.
When asked the question of what to say to an Encarnacion-style streaking player, I said, "smack him on the butt and say, 'Great job!'" I went on to explain why, because I had enough time, but if I didn't, if I weren't an analyst with my own segment, if I were just another teammate at the plate for a post-homer, hop-up-and-down scrum, why would I say anything else?
Good players have skills that allow them to repeat positive results more often than bad players, but they're still going have their share of negative outcomes. And when that share of not so desirables get unnaturally long, it becomes more difficult for them to shrug off as just part of the game. That's when a player's focus shifts away from his process and skews onto his results. It is the hypothetical versus the controllable, and players are taught to focus on what they can control.
A common recipe for a slump is a string of bad results that have gotten long enough that a player can't help but perseverate them. Next, the player will go to extremes with his play style to try and fix a result; chasing more, trying to force something to happen, going outside his talent zone. This is the physical manifestation of a psychological panic.
Of course, It may not look like he has made tons of changes to you on the outside, but when you've worked on your play style for years, taking thousands upon thousands of reps, any adjustment can feel massive, let alone ones that make you feel like you've completely abandoned what made you who you are before the latest downturn.
Conversely, when things are going well, thinking about the result can also be dangerous. Thinking about how winning feels before you've actually prepared yourself to compete. Thinking about how well you hit a certain pitcher without focusing on what you need to keep your stroke together.
What you want as a player, more than anything, is to have a routine that makes you feel comfortable, strong, and ready to… wait for it… put your best swing on a ball so you can help your team. When a player can say something like that and mean it, he's comfortable and committed to his process. It's best to stay in the moment, even though the moment rarely makes for a good sound bite, what with all its brutal simplicity.
For those on the outside, the outcome is always the story. But if results are king, the process is the kingmaker. And since the players are in the business of honing the process, and this process can be hard to explain in a 10-minute radio interview, a 750-word beat column or a tight quote, I expect narratives built around randomly generated numbers to be the longest streak this game ever sees.
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Dirk Hayhurst is a former pitcher who spent nearly a decade in professional baseball between MiLB and MLB. He is also a best-selling author, and has appeared on Baseball America, Bleacher Report, Deadspin, The Score, ESPN, TBS' MLB postseason broadcasts, Sportsnet Canada and more. More from Dirk at www.dirkhayhurst.com. Follow him on Twitter at @thegarfoose.